Coming into this past weekend, Oregon’s first true road test (at Arizona State) and West Virginia’s first bounce-back game (vs. Kansas State) were highly anticipated contests that many hoped would reveal each of these teams’ true colors. Well, plenty was revealed, and what we learned about the two squads could not have contrasted more.
Let’s start with our old friend, the West Virginia Mountaineers. I know this is meant to be an offensive column, but this simply must be said: West Virginia’s defense is bad, really bad. In the Mountaineers’ first four Big 12 games, they have giving up an average of 54.8 points per game! On Saturday against Kansas State, the Wildcats’ first eight drives of the game had the following results: FG, TD, TD, TD, TD, TD, TD, and TD. No, that is not a typo. Eight possessions, eight scores, 52 points.
Tying that back into offense, no matter how good West Virginia’s offense may be, it will never be allowed to show it when West Virginia is down, 31-7, at halftime. Strong balance between the running and passing game is a staple of Holgorsen’s Air Raid attack. But when your defense is hemorrhaging points at a Texas- and Baylor-like level, the offense has little choice but become very one-dimensional (passing) as the Mountaineers attempt to climb their way back into the contest.
Two weeks ago, in West Virginia’s big 48-45 victory over Texas, the Mountaineers ran the ball 42 times for 192 yards and two touchdowns. The strong ground game allowed the Mountaineers to finish the game with a 50/50 split in time of possession and eke out a solid, three-point road victory. At halftime of the past week’s game against Kansas State, West Virginia had run the ball just 9 times for 21 yards and barely held the ball for nine minutes. West Virginia, a team that consistently runs 75+ plays in a given game, finished the first half against the Wildcats with a grand total of 21 offensive plays.
The smooth rhythm and flow that defined the Mountaineers’ early season offensive success has been nonexistent over their past two losses. As the athleticism and execution of opposing defenses have improved, the explosive run-after-the-catch plays West Virginia leans so heavily upon have been greatly minimized. Early in the season, quarterback Geno Smith could get away with throwing the ball a yard or two downfield on third-and-10, knowing that West Virginia’s superior athletes could make a defender miss and turn the short throw into a first down. That is no longer the case.
A play midway through the second quarter perfectly summed up the Mountaineers’ recent offensive woes. Facing a third-and-10, West Virginia motioned into a five-wide, empty backfield formation. Kansas State chose to rush just four defenders, challenging Smith to make a play downfield against its seven-man coverage. After the snap, Smith briefly surveyed the defense but quickly settled for his safety valve, Dustin Garrison. The problem was, Garrison simply stood in place on the snap of the ball and made the catch one yard behind the line of scrimmage. Even after Garrison ran seven yards after the catch, the Mountaineers were still left with fourth-and-4 and forced to punt the ball away.
While Smith may have very well made the correct read (tough to say because the vertical patterns were cut off by the television feed), when you’re already down 17-0 (and quickly on your way to 24-0), simply taking what the defense gives you and living to play another down is not going to cut it.
Complicating issues is the fact that Smith’s vertical accuracy has seemingly deserted him over the past two weeks. Last week, we mentioned that Smith threw 13 consecutive incompletions on attempts thrown 12 or more yards downfield. This week, it was more of the same. Despite being down the entire game, Smith only attempted five passes 12 yards downfield or longer. In a very un-Heisman-like performance, Smith went 0-for-5 on those longer attempts.
For the sake of West Virginia fans everywhere, let’s hope the Mountaineers’ defense quickly learns how to get a stop or two in the Big 12, or we should expect more of the same. In back-to-back losses, the defense has simply put this once-dynamic offensive in too many unfavorable situations to succeed.
I’ve made the point in other pieces that the Oregon Ducks are unique in the way they run their spread offense. On the complete other end of the spectrum from Mike Leach (who seems to openly despise the running game), Chip Kelly loves to spread the defense out in order to run the rock. Just take a look at Thursday night’s stat line from Oregon’s 43-21 victory over Arizona State: 406 yards rushing, 48 passing. While the limited passing yards had a lot to do with the fact Oregon lead 43-7 at halftime and not the Ducks' true passing ability, it is quite clear that the Oregon ground attack is one of the most formidable threats in the nation (and has been for several years).
Oregon’s offense showed it could beat you several ways against the Sun Devils. After turning the ball over on their initial drive, the Ducks put together drives that lasted two, 14, 15, three, two, and one plays. Six drives, six touchdowns, 43 points (they successfully converted a 2-point conversion after their initial score). In sum, the Ducks made an Arizona State defense that had been playing good football look like a middling Big-12 defense. Many people believe if you don’t give up big plays and make Oregon sustain long drives, then you may have a chance at limit their success. Well, Oregon showed that simply is not the case with back-to-back 14- and 15-play drives that both resulted in touchdowns early in the contest.
One of Chip Kelly’s calling cards, much like Holgorsen, is how he consistently mixes up offensive formations on a week-to-week basis. Against the Sun Devils, Kelly opted to use formations that included a traditional tight end attached to the line much more than he had in previous contests. Whether or not that was to combat the Sun Devils’ blitz-heavy defense or to simply make the Sun Devils adjust to something new on the fly, it proved very effective.
More importantly, quarterback Marcus Mariota had his coming out party for the Ducks’ ground attack. Coming into the match-up, Mariota had rushed 43 times for 221 yards. Against the Sun Devils, Mariota rushed 10 times for 135 yards, and that was without playing a single snap in the second half. As if Ducks’ opponents didn’t already have enough to worry about with Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas, they now have to be concerned with Mariota’s developing ground game.
Chip Kelly doesn’t seem care what any defense throws at the Ducks. He will gladly make adjustments and eventually pick you apart. In this contest, it didn’t take the Ducks long to figure out the aggressive Sun Devils were vulnerable to the Mariota’s running ability. Next week, it may be something completely different that propels the Ducks’ offense. Going forward, the Ducks have so much talent and are so willing to make the necessary adjustments when something is not working, it’s difficult to envision them being slowed by anything other than their own mistakes.
One week, two very different outcomes. Holgorsen’s Mountaineers were once again let down by a sieve of a defense and a scuffling offense. On the other hand, Chip Kelly’s Ducks put up an easy 43 and may have been able to post 70+ points had he not called off the dogs and rested his starters in the second-half. A bye week could not have came at a better time as West Virginia gets some needed down time to clear their heads before TCU rolls into town on October 3. On the West Coast, we’ll find out if Mike Leach’s Cougars used their own bye week wisely, or if they are simply going to put up another zombie-like performance against Stanford this weekend.